Burning in the Skies

The following is the recorded testimony of one Admiral Higgins, the former commander of INDOPACOM, from the leaked Congressional investigation into the Pakistan incident of 2034.

 Your honors,

The blockade of Pakistan began like any other: 5th Fleet and its Indian counterparts cut off any means of escape for even the smallest Pakistani vessels. Nothing in or out. Originally the plan was to keep only military vessels from maneuvering but as the South Asian crisis went even farther South and aid ships were found to be harboring weapons technology from China and Saudi Arabia, it was decided that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan would be totally cut off from the rest of the world.

 

A few years ago, that would be the extent of the blockade and the end of my story. The Indians would keep the Chinese ground aid at bay, and the US and her allies would keep Islamabad from disrupting trade in the Indian Ocean.

 

But things change, and so does warfare.

 

Blockades are no longer a two-dimensional effort. After all, the whole damn crisis began beyond the stratosphere. Unfolding on the subcontinent was a containment plan that had never before been attempted, because it hadn’t been needed. There was no doctrine, no rules, even the technology to support the effort was experimental. All of this made for easy nerves in a campaign against a nuclear-armed nation known for rational statecraft and stable governance.

I suppose we should start with the collapse of the Outer Space Treaty in the early 2020s. I don’t recall quite when we all decided to tear up that particular treaty, it’s just mixed in with all the others in my memories. I do remember being on the liaison team for SPACECOM when it all started. Their heads were in their asses before I could even respond to the first panicked email chain. SPACECOM wasn’t supposed to be a lethal force, there was no funding for it. They were supposed to act in support of the lethal branches. Lethality was all the rage those days…

But I digress, the treaty itself never really mattered as much as the fact that once the orbital arms race began, it never really faced anything that could stop it. Mind you, this was before the DISKO (Distributed Interspatial Sight and Kill in Orbit) laser tests or even Moscow’s now-bankrupt “Rods from God” project. No, our problems began with a pesky little startup in Silicon Valley. Someone, and I won’t name any names, but they were very high up in the Pentagon at the time, decided that we needed a testing lab for Weaponized AI. This was of course long before the anti-WAI legislation was even drafted, but nevertheless there was some concern in the Pentagon that while WAI would be incredibly difficult to handle, it would somehow be safe if we tested it in LEO (Low-Earth Orbit). I swear half of our headaches could be prevented if the policy folks just watched more science fiction.

Right, sorry, I’ll stay on track.

Anyways, we covertly, ya know aside from the big rocket launch for an orbital platform that was very thinly disguised as an astrobiology research station…we “covertly” established Project Pegasus…really it should have been called Project Icarus…sigh…but that’s for another day. Anyways, we put some researchers and a few robots in a tin can in LEO with the purpose of probing how far we could go in combining the bloodiest edge of robotics, machine learning, and quantum tech far away from our secure systems and the public eye. Lest we incite a Skynet panic. What we found was that we were actually pretty good at building killer learning machines. What we didn’t learn until it was too late was that you’d have to be pretty crazy as far as humans go to agree to such a mission. And so, after that little twerp from Cal Tech spaced his fellow researchers, he hijacked the Pegasus platform and tried to fly it into the ISS. Apparently he had a crush on one of our astronauts after some tech conference and was quite angry that she ignored all of his attempts to sleep with her…Fortunately for her and the ISS crew, he missed but now we had a psychopath and a collection of killer robots wildly swinging around the earth in an orbit that was anything but controlled. There was a brief time where we hoped that he would just slingshot himself out of orbit but uh, yeah that didn’t happen.

Well soon enough, Beijing caught on to our little “Andromeda” conundrum. Naturally, we refused to comment on the operation. They didn’t exactly buy our astrobiology cover and with each orbit, Pegasus came closer and closer to hitting Tiangong-3. Eventually they got fed up with us and took matters into their own hands, lest they lose the orbital link between Earth and ChiCom lunar operations.

Turns out, Tiangong-3 wasn’t just a support station for space exploration. It was armed to the fuckin’ teeth. And so, in the blink of an eye, Tiangong-3 fired up their charged particle cannon, ya know, what every peaceful space mission needs, and incinerated Pegasus over the Hindu Kush.

In space, no one can hear you start an arms race, but on the ground, it was the shot heard round the fuckin’ world.

Fast forward a decade or so and here I was at the head of INDOPACOM. The Saudis had been flooding Pakistan with tech as their axis with Beijing grew in strength. The Indians were losing their minds but what could we do? Half of the world still needed Saudi oil and what they lost in revenue they poured into arms development to sell to everyone that we or the Russians wouldn’t. Riyadh focused on disruptive projects, the kind that every middle state wanted but that every great power sure as hell didn’t want to leave on the open market. The relationship between Riyadh and Islamabad went back decades, and until Pakistan actually did something that threatened global security, no one had the stomach to do anything.

In that sense, ya gotta love coups.

The ISI-backed coup that toppled the regime in Islamabad was in many ways a mirror of Riyadh’s politics. The same meddlesome groups in Riyadh joined up with the meddlesome groups in the ISI, again, and took power for themselves. It was in the middle of this chaos that we first picked up chatter of Beijing’s intentions in the Pacific, but when we lost our source, we seemingly forgot everything. That, however, is for the attention of another committee and not my area of expertise.

Where was I? Oh yes, all of the appropriate assets were in place for the Pakistan blockade…on the ground. In the skies up above, as I sat on the USS Ford in the North Indian, SPACECOM began deploying its first real forces. The President wanted a total blackout from the Stratosphere on up, and he was about to get one. Just not the one he wanted. Pakistan’s ballistic missile program was the first priority, we knew we couldn’t stop all of the nukes if war broke out but we wanted to contain them to theatre level launches. Then there was the matter of their ASAT program and their strategic comms. Most of those comms satellites were relays for Riyadh but we didn’t exactly care. We wanted Pakistan in a dome, totally shut off and contained from the outside world, like my daughter when she gets mad and locks herself in her room. Perhaps in our planning we didn’t quite consider how being shut off from the world might trigger a country renowned for its paranoia. In retrospect, yeah, that was definitely one of our biggest fuck ups.

Anyhow, SPACECOM’s UMBRELLA network, don’t ask me to spell out the acronym, they just really wanted to spell UMBRELLA. Anyways, the network was as you know a collection of microsatellites using distributed quantum computing operations to place an electronic blanket over Pakistan while dually acting as an advanced warning and targeting system for our DISKO network in case someone fired an ICBM. Awfully big task for satellites the size of my torso but they got the job done in every simulation we ever ran. Of course, those were simulations. The goal was simply to keep Pakistan contained, to stop the ASAT tests that had ruined a significant portion of LEO for operations both scientific and military in nature. We had wanted to stop Pakistan for awhile but could never make diplomatic headway because the American people just didn’t care, and neither did congress. What got us into this whole mess was that damn coup, suddenly those psychopaths in Islamabad felt SpaceX’s Mars flotillas were appropriate targets for ASAT tests. Overnight we had thousands of dead colonists, many of whom were American, and debris blocking a third of ideal LEO orbital paths.

For a while, we thought we had it all under control. UMBRELLA was working, and so was the blockade on earth. What happened next, well for obvious reasons we’re still not sure how it happened, but it did. Pakistan fired off a few of its ICBMS, paranoia is a bitch, I guess. Except, they didn’t race for Delhi or our fleet like we expected them to, no, they went straight up into orbit.

They detonated before DISKO could get a lock, hard to kill something so quickly that wasn’t along any of the pre-planned flight paths. How exactly Pakistan knew about UMBRELLA we’ll probably never know. Because shortly after we lost UMBRELLA, those damn Indians wiped half of Pakistan off the fucking map. It took every shred of effort by Secretary Adams to convince the Chinese and Russians not to jump to a hair trigger. There was an overflow of information on the Ford while we tried to figure out what the hell had happened. From the superstructure all I could see was…burning in the skies. Millions of people and billions of dollars’ worth of hardware destroyed in orbit and on the ground. And we didn’t just lose UMBRELLA that day, we lost most of our LEO assets tasked from other commands to Pakistan. We were so confident, just like with Pegasus, that we could control everything. But the truth is, our hubris blinded us. Every time I try to sleep, your honors, all I can see is that burning in the skies…and so long as we’re blind up above and down below…the fire will spread.

The truth is that weaponizing space has cost us so much and won us very little. We are playing with tactical weapons whose destruction or abuse can cost us on the strategic level. We must contain our wars to the earth if we want to grow as a species and as a nation. But I fear things will only get worse. I don’t care who you blame for Pakistan, because at the end of the day we’re all responsible. I supposed Pegasus opened Pandora’s box, but that cannon on Tiangong-3 was going to be fired someday anyhow. I just wish instead of an arms race we had tried to talk everyone down. Maybe Pakistan will change that, but I think that’s a little too optimistic. The fire’s not done spreading and I fear where it will go next.

Thank you, that concludes my testimony.